What Is Embedding in Grammar?

When Sentences Include One Clause in Another

embedding - nesting dolls
Another term for embedding in English grammar is nesting. (Sharon Vos-Arnold/Getty Images)

In generative grammar, embedding is the process by which one clause is included (embedded) in another. This is also known as nesting. More broadly, embedding refers to the inclusion of any linguistic unit as part of another unit of the same general type. Another major type of embedding in English grammar is subordination.

Examples and Observations

Clauses that stand on their own are known as root, matrix, or main clauses. However, in some sentences, there can be multiple clauses. The following sentences contain two clauses each:

  • Wanda said that Lydia sang.

In this sentence, you have the root clause: [Wanda said that Lydia sang], which has the secondary clause [that Lydia sang] embedded inside it.  

  • Arthur wants Amanda to vote.

In this sentence, the clause [Amanda to vote], which has the subject Amanda and the predicate phrase [to vote], is embedded within the main clause ​[Arthur wants Amanda to vote].

Both examples of clauses within clauses are embedded clauses.

The following examples illustrate three types of embedded clauses. Note that the embedded clauses are in boldface and that each matrix clause is also a main clause. You'll also see that the embedded clauses are marked in some way. For example, by the initial who, that, or when:

Good Embedding vs. Bad Embedding

One way for a writer or speaker to expand a sentence is through the use of embedding. When two clauses share a common category, one can often be embedded in the other. For example:

  • Norman brought the pastry. My sister had forgotten it.

becomes

  • Norman brought the pastry my sister had forgotten.

So far, so good. Right? Problems tend to arise when people go overboard. Adding extensive embedding that includes a host of optional categories can sink your sentence:

  • Norman brought the pastry Mrs. Philbin baked yesterday for her Uncle Mortimer who, it turned out, was allergic to walnuts so my sister was going to take it off her hands but she forgot to pick it up and bring it.

Rather than jamming everything into a single sentence, a good writer would likely express these propositions in two or more sentences:

  • Mrs. Philbin baked pastry for her Uncle Mortimer yesterday but it turned out he was allergic to walnuts. My sister was going to take it off her hands but she forgot to pick it up, so Norman brought it.

Of course, some very famous writers use this very type of "sentence overload" as a literary construct that's intrinsic to their personal writing style. William Faulkner set a world record with a single sentence that contained a total of 1,288 words and so many clauses, it might take all day to count them. Other notable writers who were masters of excess include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Becket, and Gabriel García Márquez. Here's a fine example from "Rabbit Run" by John Updike:

"But then they were married (she felt awful about being pregnant before but Harry had been talking about marriage for a while and anyway laughed when she told him in early February about missing her period and said Great she was terribly frightened and he said Great and lifted her put his arms around under her bottom and lifted her like you would a child he could be so wonderful when you didn’t expect it in a way it seemed important that you didn’t expect it there was so much nice in him she couldn’t explain to anybody she had been so frightened about being pregnant and he made her be proud) they were married after her missing her second period in March and she was still little clumsy dark-complected Janice Springer and her husband was a conceited lunk who wasn’t good for anything in the world Daddy said and the feeling of being alone would melt a little with a little drink."

​Sources

  • Carnie, Andrew. "Syntax: A Generative Introduction." Wiley, 2002
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. "Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach." Wiley, 2003
  • Young, Richard E.;  Becker, Alton L.; Pike, Kenneth L. "Rhetoric: Discovery and Change." Harcourt, 1970
  • Updike, John. "Rabbit, Run." Alfred A. Knopf, 1960